Jerry Lewis, Nonpareil Genius of Comedy, Dies at 91
Jerry Lewis, whose irrepressible zaniness and frantic creativity vaulted him to stardom as a comic movie star who wielded unparalleled green-light power at Paramount in the 1960s, died Sunday (Aug. 20). He was 91.
Lewis, who teamed with Dean Martin in the 1950s as one of the most successful tandems in the history of show business, died at 9:15 a.m. at his home in Las Vegas, John Katsilometes of the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported, citing a statement from Lewis' family.
Lewis’ health ailments over the years included open-heart surgery in 1983, surgery for prostate cancer in 1992, treatment for his dependence on prescription drugs in 2003, a heart attack in 2006 and a long bout with pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic lung disease for which he took Prednisone, causing his face and body to balloon.
At the peak of their popularity, Martin & Lewis ruled nightclubs, radio and then the box office with their breezy yet physical comedy act, reigning as the top draw at theaters from 1950-56.
After an especially acrimonious break-up with his partner, Lewis remained as the No. 1 movie draw through the mid-1960s on the strength of such classics as The Bellboy (1960) and The Nutty Professor (1963). As Paramount’s biggest star, he had the creative freedom to make the moves he wanted to make.
Lewis also was known for his efforts as national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. He devoted more than a half-century to fighting the neuromuscular disease, hosting an annual Labor Day telethon -- and raising nearly $2.5 billion -- from 1955 until he was ousted before the 2011 telecast. Lewis was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for his efforts.
Extremely popular throughout Europe, especially in France, Lewis won “best director” awards eight times in Europe, including three in France and one each in Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. New Wave critics and filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard spurred his popularity in France, where he became known as “Le Roi du Crazy.”
In 1984, Lewis was presented with the French Legion of Honor and in 2009 was honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award; he kept the trophy from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on a platform above a TV in his Las Vegas home, where it would rotate at the push of a button.
The son of a professional entertainers, Lewis was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, N.J. His mother played the piano, and his father was a musical arranger. Lewis made his debut at age 5 at a hotel in the Borscht Belt, the legendary upstate New York show-business breeding ground, by singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” He dropped out of high school, working as a soda jerk and theater usher, all the while cultivating a comedy routine, in which he mimed phonograph records.
It was not until he hooked up with young Italian-American crooner Martin that his career took off. In July 1946, while performing at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, one of the entertainers working with Lewis abruptly quit, and Lewis suggested Martin, who was nine years older, as a replacement. Their ad libs, including insults and off-the-wall jokes, were a sensation, and their salaries skyrocketed from $250 a week to $5,000. When they appeared on the balcony of the Paramount Theater in Times Square, Broadway became so crowded that traffic backed up to 59th Street.
Their shtick was categorized as “free-for-all humor.” Playing up their physical and personality contrasts -- Lewis’ monkeyshines and ineptitude against straight man Martin’s sedate, sexy charm -- they became overwhelmingly successful. Producer Hal Wallis caught their act and signed them to a deal at Paramount, and their first film, My Friend Irma (1949), in which they were cast in supporting roles, was a hit.
Typically, their movies followed the same formula: Lewis acted like an overgrown 8-year-old, while the suave Martin would break into song at the most unlikely provocation.
Martin & Lewis subsequently starred in such comedies as At War With the Army (1950), Sailor Beware (1952), The Caddy (1953), Living It Up (1954), You’re Never Too Young (1955) -- a remake of Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor -- and Artists and Models (1955). Hollywood or Bust (1956) was the last film of the 16 they headlined.
Martin got tired of Lewis getting most of the attention, and at New York’s Copacabana on July 25, 1956, the duo made their final nightclub appearance together -- 10 years to the day of their first engagement. The feud that developed did not publicly end until the MDA telethon of 1976, when Frank Sinatra surprised the host by bringing Martin onstage. Martin died in 1995.
“Other comedy teams never generated anything like the hysteria that Dean and I did, and that was because we had that X factor -- the powerful feeling between us,” said Lewis, who wrote about their relationship in the 2005 book Dean & Me (A Love Story). “And it really was an X factor, a kind of mystery.”
After the split, Lewis continued in films, basically playing the same type of manic, naive character. Pacting with Paramount in a then-whopping $10 million deal, he agreed to make 14 films during a seven-year period. At the time, it was the biggest personal deal for the services of one star in Hollywood history. Lewis and his production company were given virtual carte blanche by Paramount head Y. Frank Freeman.
Lewis found his first solo starring role in The Delicate Delinquent (1957) and quickly followed with a string of hits: The Sad Sack (1957), Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), The Geisha Boy (1958) and Don’t Give Up the Ship (1959).
The manic comedies anchored Paramount: In 1960, when the studio was faced with no Christmas movie, Lewis whipped one up in a month. The Bellboy, the first film he directed, was a slew of blackout gags he concocted around the Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel, where he had just finished a stint performing. In French terms, Lewis had become an “auteur,” co-writing, directing and acting in his films.
He was on a professional roll, playing a series of kind-hearted hyperactive dupes: In 1960’s CinderFella, directed by Frank Tashlin, he offered up a comic gender reversal on the Cinderella tale and danced down an impossibly long staircase to sounds of the Count Basie Orchestra. In 1961’s The Errand Boy, which he directed, he played an inept employee in a studio mailroom.
But it was 1963’s The Nutty Professor that cemented his reputation. Directing himself, Lewis starred as a near-sighted professor and chemistry egghead who dazzles his coeds by becoming the ultra-cool pop singer Buddy Love. The movie also served as the basis for Eddie Murphy’s retooled remake in 1996, with Murphy taking over the nerdy professor role, this time turning into a sharp-tongued comedian. (Murphy presented Lewis with the Hersholt trophy at the 2009 Oscars.)
Throughout the late 1950s and early ’60s, Lewis was constantly in motion, recording several records. His song Rock-a-Bye Your Baby sold nearly 4 million copies, and he hosted the Oscars in 1957 and 1959.
Lewis’ career faltered in the late ’60s, however, but not because of a lack of effort on his part. Indefatigable, he claimed to work every day for a period of seven years and regularly had a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call. Yet critics, as well as moviegoers, decided that Lewis, as director/writer/actor, was too much of a good thing; some felt his ego was out of control.
His films dipped drastically at the box office, and he experienced his greatest disappointment on TV in 1963 when his two-hour Saturday night talk and variety show turned off audiences. His manic mania did not play in this socially minded, ultra-serious era. The fact that the French continued to celebrate his talent became something of a running gag.
For 13 years, Lewis later admitted, he also was addicted to the painkilling drug Percodan, which was prescribed for treatment of a chipped spinal column he received while doing a pratfall in 1965 on The Andy Williams Show.
His 1972 film The Day the Clown Cried -- a drama set inside a Nazi concentration camp -- was never released. He donated a copy to the Library of Congress in August 2015, with the agreement the film not be shown for a decade.
In 1980, after an absence of nearly 10 years from the screen, Lewis attempted a comeback with the film Hardly Working. More successfully, he followed with a straight role as a talk-show host stalked by an obsessive fan in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), starring Robert De Niro. Lewis’ dramatic performance as a beleaguered TV star was critically lauded.
He most recently appeared in such films as Cookie (1989), Arizona Dream (1993), Funny Bones (1995) and Max Rose (2016), and he played opposite Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood in The Trust (2016). He performed a cameo as himself in Billy Crystal’s Mr. Saturday Night (1992) and guest-starred on a 2006 episode of Law & Order: SVU.
Lewis also occasionally directed TV shows, including episodes of Ben Casey. TV producers tapped into his unexpected dramatic flair, casting him to appear in such series as Wiseguy in the late 1980s.
He ventured onto the stage in 1995, making his Broadway debut in a revival of the musical Damn Yankees. Playing the devil, he was reportedly paid the highest sum in Broadway history at the time.
As a new generation came to appreciate his work -- “Hey, l-a-a-a-d-y,” one of his signature catchphrases, became a favorite of his fellow comedians -- Lewis was regularly honored for his achievements.
In 1991, he was presented with the Comic Life Achievement Award at the National Academy of Cable Programming’s ACE Awards. The American Comedy Awards gifted him with a lifetime achievement award in 1998. And the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. presented him with its career achievement honor in 2004.
During the late 1960s and early ’70s, he taught in the Division of Cinema at USC, drawing students from across the country, including future director Robert Zemeckis. He authored The Total Film Maker (1971), based on recordings of 480 hours of classroom lectures. Indeed, Lewis was an innovator, the first filmmaker to use a video-assist device on location.
When Lewis was 18, he met singer Patti Palmer, and they wed 10 days later. During their marriage, which lasted from 1944-82, they had five sons and adopted another child. His youngest, Joseph, became a drug addict and committed suicide in 2009 at age 45.
Lewis married his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, in 1983. They adopted a daughter, Danielle.
This article originally appeared in THR.com.